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Lenny Rock Kenner v. Commonwealth of Virginia
Case Number: 0934-18-1
Judge: ROBERT J. HUMPHREYS
Court: COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA
Plaintiff's Attorney: Leah A. Darron, Senior Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, on brief)
Need help finding a lawyer for representation concerning appealing a complaint for animate object sexual penetration, aggravated sexual battery, and custodial sexual abuse in Virginia?
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On appeal, “we consider the evidence and all reasonable inferences flowing from that
evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party at trial.”
Williams v. Commonwealth, 49 Va. App. 439, 442 (2007) (en banc) (quoting Jackson v.
Commonwealth, 267 Va. 666, 672 (2004)).
In November 2014, the victim, D.T., began living with her cousin, Angela Robinson, and
Kenner, Robinson’s fiancé. D.T. was six years old at the time. D.T. returned to her mother’s
home in October of 2015, after her seventh birthday. About six weeks after D.T. returned to live
PU BL ISH ED
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with her mother, D.T. told her mother and a neighbor that, on several occasions, Kenner touched
in and around her “private” while she lived with him. Specifically, Kenner made her sit on his
lap on a red chair in his bedroom while he put his hand both on and inside D.T.’s vagina while he
forced her to watch videos of naked adults engaging in different sex acts. Those videos were “on
his computer. They came from Google.” Kenner also told D.T. that when she grew up she
would be his girlfriend.1
Dr. Alicia Meyer (“Dr. Meyer”), a licensed clinical psychologist, evaluated D.T. in
September 2016 and testified at trial as an expert in the psychological assessment and treatment
of childhood trauma. She diagnosed D.T. with post-traumatic stress disorder, which she
explained can occur after an individual has endured a “big stressful event,” including sexual
violence. Dr. Meyer testified that D.T.’s symptoms were directly correlated with her allegation
that Kenner sexually abused her. D.T. also told Dr. Meyer “something about a Taser, either
witnessing or experiencing [Kenner] using a Taser.”
Dr. Michelle Clayton (“Dr. Clayton”), a child-abuse pediatrician, conducted a physical
examination of D.T., the result of which was consistent with D.T.’s allegations. Additionally,
Dr. Clayton noticed “paired circular marks” on D.T.’s thighs that were consistent with injuries
from a stun gun.
On November 25, 2015, police arrested Kenner. That same day, police executed a search
warrant at Kenner’s apartment and recovered a desktop computer from his bedroom, a laptop
from the kitchen, and computer disks from his bedroom closet. A password-protected user
account on the desktop contained an email account with Kenner’s name, an autofill profile for
Kenner with his phone number and address, a student loan document associated with Kenner,
1 At trial, D.T. testified to these events via closed-circuit television. A video recording of a forensic interview with D.T. was also admitted into evidence, and portions of that video were played for the jury at trial.
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and eBay and Facebook accounts in Kenner’s name. The desktop computer also contained
artifacts indicating that the computer was used to stream, download, or attempt to download
numerous videos from “Ares,” a peer-to-peer sharing software. The titles of those videos
described sex with young children or teaching young children to have sex. On March 14, 2016, a
grand jury indicted Kenner on one count of custodial sexual abuse, one count of aggravated
sexual battery, and one count of animate object sexual penetration, stemming from the abuse
between November of 2014 and October of 2015.
On October 21, 2016, the Commonwealth filed a motion in limine asking the court to
allow it to introduce evidence of child pornography found on the computer. At a hearing on the
motion, the Commonwealth argued that the titles of pornographic child videos found on the
computer were “so much like the facts” of the instant offense that the evidence was “highly
relevant and probative” of Kenner’s “attitude towards his victim,” as well as his intent, plan,
motive, and absence of mistake. Counsel for Kenner argued that the video titles contained “a
bunch of very prejudicial terms” that were “certainly more prejudicial than . . . probative” and
did not “show a pattern or anything like that . . . of conduct that leads up to this.” The circuit
court granted the Commonwealth’s motion, specifically allowing it to introduce “images or
evidence of child pornography” from the computer “as well as evidence that the computer had
been used to download or attempt to download certain files.”
Before trial, Kenner’s trial counsel moved for a continuance because he needed more
time to prepare. The circuit court granted that motion and set the trial date for April 24, 2017.
On April 12, 2017, Kenner’s trial counsel moved to withdraw from the case. The circuit court
held a pretrial hearing on that motion, where Kenner testified that he no longer had faith in trial
counsel’s ability to defend him because trial counsel had not yet subpoenaed thirty-five character
witnesses or reviewed certain jail call recordings. However, Kenner had only made trial counsel
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aware of the character witnesses a week before the hearing, despite being represented by the
same trial counsel since the inception of the case.
Trial counsel further argued that he lacked the time and resources to adequately defend
the case and that he may have two conflicts of interest. First, Robinson, one of Kenner’s main
witnesses, appeared to have turned against him, creating the possibility that trial counsel would
have to testify at trial. However, trial counsel acknowledged that this was only a “potential
conflict” that “hasn’t arisen yet.” Second, Kenner’s sister filed a bar complaint against trial
counsel. In a letter dated March 31, 2017, the Virginia State Bar informed trial counsel that it
had received an inquiry concerning him. The letter directed trial counsel to communicate with
Kenner regarding the status of his case and to copy the Bar on all communications with Kenner
in order to “try to avoid [the Bar] initiating a formal ethics inquiry.”
The circuit court, recognizing the motion to withdraw as essentially a motion to continue,
denied the motion, but declined to “conclusively decide” whether the possibility that Robinson
might become an adverse witness warranted a withdrawal in the future. However, on April 20,
2017, Kenner’s trial counsel filed another motion to withdraw and a motion for a psychological
evaluation. The circuit court granted the motion for a psychological evaluation to determine
whether Kenner was competent to stand trial and continued the case until after the return of the
Trial took place on June 12-13, 2017. Prior to voir dire, the circuit court asked Kenner if
he was satisfied with his counsel. Although Kenner replied that he was not because the
subpoenas “came out late,” trial counsel did not renew his motion to withdraw. At trial, the
Commonwealth called twelve witnesses, including D.T., Dr. Meyer, Dr. Clayton, and FBI
Special Agent David Desy (“Agent Desy”).
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Agent Desy testified that the desktop found in Kenner’s bedroom contained forty files of
child pornography: thirty-eight images and two videos. Agent Desy described, generally, the
content of those files for the jury. However, over the Commonwealth’s objection, the circuit
court refused to allow the photographs themselves to be presented to the jury. Similarly, the
circuit court limited introduction of the video evidence. Despite its initial pretrial ruling that the
videos themselves were admissible, the circuit court only allowed the Commonwealth to
introduce the titles of the videos at trial. The titles included: “Fuck young naked nude little girl
cum,” “Toddler Fucked In Pussy,” “10 yr fuck little girl,” “Teaching sex to daughter,” and “dad
on daughter full penetration sex.” The Commonwealth’s evidence indicated that the files were
downloaded, or attempted to be downloaded, between November 2014 and September 2015.
Kenner did not request a limiting instruction with respect to this evidence, and one was not
At the conclusion of the Commonwealth’s evidence, Kenner called eleven witnesses,
including Robinson. However, Robinson’s testimony did not prove adverse to Kenner and trial
counsel did not renew his motion to withdraw based on her testimony.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. The clerk read the verdict and asked
the jury “so say you all . . . ?” to which all jurors appeared to respond affirmatively. The circuit
court then explained to the jury that Virginia criminal trials are bifurcated, meaning the jury first
determines guilt or innocence and then, if the jury finds the defendant guilty, further
deliberations are required to determine a sentence. The jury was then excluded from the
Outside the presence of the jury, the circuit court requested jury instructions from the
parties. The jury returned to the courtroom, received instructions on determining a sentence, and
heard arguments from the parties regarding sentencing. During his argument to the jury
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regarding sentencing, for the first time, Kenner moved the circuit court to have the jury
individually polled pursuant to Rule 3A:17 to ensure that the guilty verdict rendered in the guilt
phase was unanimous. The circuit court denied that motion, and the jury retired to deliberate on
sentencing. Kenner’s trial counsel offered argument to support his motion. However, after
detailing the posture of the trial by the time Kenner made the motion, the circuit court again
denied the motion as untimely. The circuit court sentenced Kenner to life plus seven years,
following the jury’s recommendation. This appeal follows.
Kenner essentially argues on appeal that the circuit court erred in (1) admitting the
evidence of child pornography found on his computer; (2) failing to permit his trial counsel to
withdraw; and (3) in failing to permit a poll of the jury regarding their verdict.
A. The Admission of Evidence of Possession of Child Pornography
Kenner argues that the circuit court erred in admitting evidence of child pornography
found on the computer in his bedroom. Kenner contends that the admission of such evidence
was in error because the evidence was not relevant, and even if relevant, its probative value was
substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice or its likelihood of confusing or
misleading the jury.
“The admissibility of evidence is within the broad discretion of the trial court, and a
ruling will not be disturbed on appeal in the absence of an abuse of discretion.” Abdo v.
Commonwealth, 64 Va. App. 468, 473 (2015) (quoting Blain v. Commonwealth, 7 Va. App. 10,
16 (1988)). “Only when reasonable jurists could not differ can we say an abuse of discretion has
occurred.” Tynes v. Commonwealth, 49 Va. App. 17, 21 (2006) (quoting Thomas v.
Commonwealth, 44 Va. App. 741, 753, adopted upon reh’g en banc, 45 Va. App. 811 (2005)).
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Generally, evidence of an accused’s other criminal acts is “inadmissible to prove guilt of
the crime for which the accused is on trial.” Gonzales v. Commonwealth, 45 Va. App. 375, 380
(2005) (en banc). “The policy underlying the exclusion of such evidence protects the accused
against unfair prejudice resulting from the consideration of prior criminal conduct in determining
guilt.” Sutphin v. Commonwealth, 1 Va. App. 241, 245 (1985). However, “such evidence is
admissible ‘if it tends to prove any relevant element of the offense charged’ or if ‘the evidence is
connected with or leads up to the offense for which the accused is on trial.’” Woodfin v.
Commonwealth, 236 Va. 89, 95 (1988) (quoting Kirkpatrick v. Commonwealth, 211 Va. 269,
272 (1970)). In those circumstances, evidence of other crimes can be relevant
(1) to prove motive to commit the crime charged; (2) to establish guilty knowledge or to negate good faith; (3) to negate the possibility of mistake or accident; (4) to show the conduct and feeling of the accused toward his victim, or to establish their prior relations; (5) to prove opportunity; (6) to prove identity of the accused as the one who committed the crime where the prior criminal acts are so distinctive as to indicate a modus operandi; or (7) to demonstrate a common scheme or plan where the other crime or crimes constitute a part of a general scheme of which the crime charged is a part.
Quinones v. Commonwealth, 35 Va. App. 634, 640 (2001) (quoting Lockhart v. Commonwealth,
18 Va. App. 254, 259, opinion withdrawn and vacated on other grounds on reh’g en banc, 19
Va. App. 436 (1994), aff’d, 251 Va. 184 (1996)); see also Va. R. Evid. 2:404(b) (evidence of
“other crimes” is admissible when “relevant to show motive, opportunity, intent, preparation,
plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, accident, or if they are part of a common scheme
or plan”). Further, “where the motive, intent, or knowledge of the accused is at issue, evidence
of other offenses is admissible if it shows the conduct or attitude of the accused toward his
victim, establishes the relationship between the parties, or negates the possibility of accident or
mistake.” Moore v. Commonwealth, 222 Va. 72, 76 (1981). However, “the admission of such
‘other crimes’ evidence is prohibited when its only purpose is to show that the defendant has a
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propensity to commit crimes or a particular type of crime and, therefore, probably committed the
offense for which he is being tried.” Guill v. Commonwealth, 255 Va. 134, 139 (1998).
The dissent concludes that this Court’s decision in Blaylock v. Commonwealth, 26
Va. App. 579 (1998), requires reversal in this case. Although we believe that Blaylock was
wrongly decided, we acknowledge the view of the dissent that if the holding in that case is
applicable, it would control the analysis here by virtue of the inter-panel accord doctrine.
However, in our view, neither the holding in Blaylock nor the inter-panel accord doctrine are
applicable to this case for several reasons.
First, in Blaylock, the actual ground for reversing the case was that the circuit court erred
in excluding reputation evidence about the victim, which was not harmless error. Id. at 586-87.
The opinion in Blaylock then addressed other issues that had been raised because they “may
arise upon retrial,” including the admissibility of other crimes evidence. Id. at 587. Thus, the
language relied upon by the dissent we consider non-binding dicta.
Second, this case presents a situation where our Supreme Court in Moore v.
Commonwealth, 222 Va. 72, 76 (1981), and Ortiz v. Commonwealth, 276 Va. 705, 714 (2008),
has twice held to the contrary of the holding in Blaylock. Given the clear tension between
Moore, Ortiz, and Blaylock, we conclude that even if the inter-panel accord doctrine applies to
Blaylock, it must give way to precedent from a higher tribunal.
Finally, the dicta in Blaylock applies only to the use of other crimes evidence as proof of
intent and does not address any of the other proper uses of such evidence that are applicable in
this case. Therefore, in analyzing the issue raised by Kenner’s first assignment of error, we do so
in the light of Moore, Ortiz, and other binding cases that deal with the admissibility of other
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Our Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that other crimes evidence is admissible
where it “shows motive, method, intent, plan or scheme, or any other relevant element of the
offense on trial,” Scott v. Commonwealth, 228 Va. 519, 527 (1984) (emphasis added), or when it
“shows the conduct or attitude of the accused toward his victim[,] establishes the relationship
between the parties[,] or negates the possibility of accident or mistake.” Ortiz, 276 Va. at 714
(emphasis added) (quoting Moore, 222 Va. at 76). Evidence of other crimes is also admissible
“where the evidence is connected with or leads up to the offense for which the accused is on
trial.” Kirkpatrick v. Commonwealth, 211 Va. 269, 272 (1970), superseded by statute on other
grounds, Code § 18.2-31(8), as recognized in Commonwealth v. Smith, 263 Va. 13, 18 (2002).
While the fact that the child pornography evidence in this case could be improperly used to show
that Kenner had a propensity to sexually abuse a minor, that does not necessarily render the
evidence inadmissible since a cautionary instruction, if requested, would presumably prevent
consideration of other crimes evidence for that purpose. Rather, the law is clear that “if such
evidence tends to prove any other relevant fact of the offense charged, and is otherwise
admissible, it will not be excluded merely because it also shows [the accused] to have been
guilty of another crime.” Williams v. Commonwealth, 203 Va. 837, 841 (1962) (quoting Day v.
Commonwealth, 196 Va. 907, 914 (1955)).
Our Supreme Court found evidence of pornographic videos to be relevant and admissible
under circumstances analogous to this case. In Ortiz, the appellant assigned error to the circuit
court’s admission of pornographic videotapes found in his home. Ortiz, 276 Va. at 711. There,
the child-victim alleged that Ortiz “showed her movies of ‘grownups doing something’ without
clothes on.” Id. The Supreme Court held that the evidence was not admitted to show a
propensity to commit a crime, but rather “was relevant for one or more of the following
purposes: to show the conduct or attitude of Ortiz toward the child, to prove motive or method of
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committing the rape, to prove an element of the crime charged, or to negate the possibility of
accident or mistake.” Id. at 715. Because the videotapes corroborated the child’s allegations,
they were relevant to negate the possibility of accident or mistake, a defense raised by the
appellant at trial. Id. at 716.
The evidence in this case was likewise relevant and admissible. As was the case in Ortiz,
Kenner showed D.T. pornographic movies involving naked adults while he assaulted her. While
the evidence of child pornography introduced may have shown Kenner’s propensity to engage in
sexual acts with a minor, the evidence was not admitted for that purpose. Instead, the evidence
was relevant to show Kenner’s conduct or attitude toward D.T., to prove motive or method of
committing the sexual assaults, as evidence of Kenner’s specific intent to engage in sex with a
minor, and to corroborate D.T.’s allegations. Cf. Quinones, 35 Va. App. at 643 (holding that the
trial court erred in admitting evidence that defendant owned pornographic videos where “[t]he
record contain[ed] no evidence establishing a relationship between the videotapes and the
charges on trial,” such as evidence “that the videotapes displayed acts . . . similar to the acts [the
defendant] allegedly performed on the victim,” “that the tapes were ever shown to the victim or
that she was aware of their existence,” or “that the videotapes played any part in the event
described by the victim”).
The child pornography evidence was found on the same desktop computer that Kenner
used to show D.T. adult pornography while he sexually assaulted her. The presence of any kind
of pornography on the desktop computer corroborated D.T.’s testimony that Kenner displayed
pornography on his computer while the sexual assaults occurred. Moreover, because the videos
were found on the same computer and because the videos were either downloaded or attempted
to be downloaded during the time frame that D.T. lived with Kenner, the child pornography
evidence found in Kenner’s apartment relates to and led up to the offense for which he was on
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trial. Simply because this evidence may also show that Kenner generally has a prurient interest
in children does not render it inadmissible. Additionally, Kenner failed to request that the jury
be instructed that it could consider the evidence only for the limited purposes discussed above
and no such instruction was given. Therefore, the evidence was relevant and properly admitted
as other crimes evidence.
Pursuant to the inter-panel accord doctrine, the dissent relies on our decision in Blaylock,
in which we held that other crimes evidence is not admissible to establish specific intent “when
intent is not genuinely in dispute.” Blaylock, 26 Va. App. at 590. Aside from the fact that
Kenner’s intent was only one of the reasons other crimes evidence was admissible in this case,
we note that in Blaylock, the existence of the child pornography would only be relevant to
improperly show the accused’s propensity to engage in criminal activity—namely, aggravated
sexual battery on a child under the age of thirteen. There were no allegations that the accused in
that case viewed pornographic materials with the victim. Here, however, D.T. testified that
Kenner touched her “private” while he held her on his lap and forced her to watch pornographic
videos on the same computer where the bulk of the child pornography was found. Ortiz is more
factually analogous to this case than Blaylock,2 and in addition to showing Kenner’s specific
intent, the other crimes evidence in this case was also relevant to show Kenner’s conduct or
attitude toward D.T., to corroborate D.T.’s allegations, and establish the relationship between
Kenner and D.T., and was connected with and led up to the offense for which Kenner was on
trial, all of which are proper uses of other crimes evidence under Kirkpatrick and its progeny.
Therefore, aside from the issue of intent, because the evidence was relevant to establish
2 Although the “other crimes” evidence in Ortiz consisted of adult pornography, not child pornography, that difference would only be relevant to the prejudicial effect of the evidence, not its admissibility.
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exceptions to the general prohibition against the use of other crimes evidence, the dicta in
Blaylock ought not prohibit the admissibility of the other crimes evidence in this case.
In any event, to the extent that we may otherwise be bound by the inter-panel accord
doctrine to apply Blaylock to the facts of this case, that case and Hill v. Commonwealth, 17
Va. App. 480 (1993), appear to us to conflict with precedent from our Supreme Court.
We reach the conclusion that Blaylock was wrongly decided for several reasons. As our
Supreme Court made clear in Moore and Ortiz, provided a cautionary instruction is given if
requested, other crimes evidence is admissible to show the conduct or attitude of the accused
toward his victim, his specific intent, and any other relevant issue. Yet under Blaylock, unless
the defendant concedes that he committed the acts alleged but did so without the relevant
specific intent, he has not “genuinely disputed” intent and the Commonwealth may not admit
other crimes evidence relevant to intent despite the fact that intent is at issue in every specific
intent offense because the Commonwealth is required to prove that element. It is axiomatic that
the Commonwealth is required to prove every element of a charged offense beyond a reasonable
doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 315-16 (1979). Blaylock requires the Commonwealth
to wait until the defense rests to determine if it may use other crimes evidence to prove specific
intent for the crime charged. This holding ignores the principle that in a trial on a plea of “Not
Guilty,” unless conceded or stipulated to by a defendant, specific intent is always “disputed”
when it is an element of the offense. Therefore, as Moore and Ortiz make clear, the
Commonwealth was entitled in this case to use other crimes evidence as part of its case-in-chief
“to show the conduct or attitude . . . toward the child, to prove motive or method of committing
the rape, to prove an element of the crime charged [including intent], or to negate the possibility
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of accident or mistake,” where the victim alleged Ortiz showed her videos of adult pornography.3
Ortiz, 276 Va. at 715. To the extent that Blaylock conflicts with this straightforward approach to
the admission of other crimes evidence, we conclude that it was improperly decided contrary to
our Supreme Court’s prior holding in Moore and/or was implicitly overruled by that Court’s
subsequent decision in Ortiz.
In addition to being relevant and material, other crimes evidence “is subject to the further
requirement that the legitimate probative value of the evidence must exceed its incidental
prejudice to the defendant.” Castillo v. Commonwealth, 70 Va. App. 394, 417 (2019) (quoting
Rose v. Commonwealth, 270 Va. 3, 11 (2005)). “[T]he responsibility for balancing the
competing considerations of probative value and unfair prejudice rests in the sound discretion of
the trial court. The exercise of that discretion will not be disturbed on appeal in the absence of a
clear abuse.” Id. (alteration in original) (quoting Ortiz, 276 Va. at 715).
Here, the probative value of the evidence substantially outweighs any danger of unfair
prejudice or likelihood of confusing or misleading the jury. The danger of unfair prejudice was
limited by the circuit court’s decision to only admit evidence of the video titles and general
descriptions of the images. This limited prejudicial effect is offset by the probative value of this
evidence and presumptively would have been eliminated by a cautionary instruction, if Kenner
had requested one. Because there were no other witnesses and a modicum of corroborating
physical evidence, any evidence that could corroborate D.T.’s testimony of abuse and negate
fabrication, the predominant defense theory at trial, was highly probative. Accordingly, we hold
that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence of child pornography.
3 Because Ortiz raised the possibility of accident or mistake, asserting “that the child might have had sex with him without his knowledge while he was drunk and asleep because he was often drunk on weekends,” thus genuinely disputing his intent under Blaylock. However, Blaylock does not conflict with the portion of Ortiz that finds the evidence relevant to show absence of mistake or accident. Ortiz, 276 Va. at 716.
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B. Trial Counsel’s Motion to Withdraw
The decision to grant or deny a motion by counsel to withdraw from the court-appointed
representation of a client is committed to the sound discretion of the circuit court, and our review
of the denial of such a motion is limited to determining whether the denial constituted an abuse
of discretion. Paris v. Commonwealth, 9 Va. App. 454, 460 (1990) (citing Payne v.
Commonwealth, 233 Va. 460, 473 (1987)). Trial counsel based his motion to withdraw on two
grounds—that trial counsel did not have the time or resources to dedicate to Kenner’s defense
and that trial counsel had a conflict of interest that affected his ability to represent Kenner.
Kenner’s argument that his trial counsel did not have the resources to dedicate to his
defense is essentially an allegation that he received ineffective assistance of counsel. Even if we
were to assume error in not permitting withdrawal of counsel, we could not determine whether
such error was harmless without examining whether counsel actually rendered “ineffective
assistance.” However, claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are not properly raised on
direct appeal and must be raised in a separate habeas petition to the Supreme Court or the circuit
court. (See Code § 8.01-654(A)(1).) Appellant here attempts to bypass that rule by linking
ineffective assistance to a prior ruling on requests for withdrawal of counsel. See Hill v.
Commonwealth, 8 Va. App. 60, 69 (1989) (en banc). We therefore do not address the merits of
this claim here.
Trial counsel’s second basis for his motion to withdraw was that he had two potential
conflicts of interest. A defendant’s right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment is violated by
“an actual conflict of interest [that] adversely affected his lawyer’s performance.” Cuyler v.
Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335, 350 (1980) (emphasis added). “[T]he possibility of conflict is
insufficient to impugn a criminal conviction.” Id. “An actual conflict of interest exists when an
attorney engages in wrongful conduct related to the client’s trial.” Carter v. Commonwealth, 16
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Va. App. 42, 47 (1993) (quoting United States v. Jones, 900 F.2d 512, 519 (2d Cir.), cert. denied,
498 U.S. 846 (1990)).
When an attorney has, in fact, engaged in wrongful conduct related to his client’s trial,
our courts are concerned with the possibility that the attorney’s fear of the wrongdoing being
disclosed would preclude a vigorous defense on the client’s behalf, thereby creating a conflict of
interest. Id. (citing Jones, 900 F.2d at 519). However, the filing of a formal complaint alleging
an ethical violation against the attorney during trial, even when filed by the defendant, does not
create a per se conflict of interest. Id. (citations omitted). “Allegations of wrongdoing alone
cannot rise to the level of an actual conflict unless the charges have some foundation.” Id.
(quoting Jones, 900 F.2d at 519). Rather, “the defendant must prove that actual wrongdoing by
counsel occurred and that counsel’s fear of disclosure of the wrongdoing caused counsel to be
ineffective in a manner that prejudiced the trial result.” Id. This Court will not disturb a circuit
court’s factual finding that no conflict of interest existed in the absence of plain error. Id. at 46
(citing Code § 8.01-680).
Here, when trial counsel moved to withdraw from the case, no actual conflict existed.
Trial counsel cited the possibility that he could be called as a witness because it appeared that
Robinson’s testimony might prove adverse to Kenner. However, under Cuyler, the mere
possibility that a witness may prove adverse is insufficient to create a conflict of interest that
deprived the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Indeed, no actual conflict of
interest ripened at trial. Similarly, the filing of a formal bar complaint against trial counsel did
not create a per se conflict of interest. On appeal, Kenner has neither alleged any prejudice nor
that the complaint had any foundation. Without more, we cannot say that the circuit court’s
determination that no conflict of interest existed at that time was plainly erroneous. Therefore,
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the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion to withdraw based on a
conflict of interest at that point in time because an actual conflict had not yet ripened.
C. Polling of the Jury
Interpretations of the rules of the Supreme Court are subject to de novo review. Nimety
v. Commonwealth, 66 Va. App. 432, 437 (2016) (citing LaCava v. Commonwealth, 283 Va. 465,
469-70 (2012)). The rule permitting a poll of the jury provides: “When a verdict is returned, the
jury shall be polled individually at the request of any party or upon the court’s own motion. If
upon the poll, all jurors do not agree, the jury may be directed to retire for further deliberations
or may be discharged.” Rule 3A:17(d) (emphasis added). Since the General Assembly’s
creation of a bifurcated proceeding, this Court has treated the guilt and sentencing phases of a
jury trial as distinct. See Ford v. Commonwealth, 48 Va. App. 262, 268-69 (2006) (“In 1994, the
General Assembly created two distinct stages of all felony and Class 1 misdemeanor trials—the
guilt phase and the punishment phase.”). Under this system, a guilty verdict becomes final when
it has been ascertained by the circuit court that a jury has unanimously reached the determination
of guilt and the verdict may not thereafter be disturbed, even during the punishment phase,
absent exceptional circumstances. Tyler v. Commonwealth, 21 Va. App. 702, 709 (1996) (citing
United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, 67 (1984) (“with few exceptions . . . once the jury has
heard the evidence and the case has been submitted, the litigants must accept the jury’s collective
judgment”)). Only after the jury has found the defendant guilty does the court conduct a
separate proceeding “limited to the ascertainment of punishment.” Ford, 48 Va. App. at 268
(emphasis added) (quoting Code § 19.2-295.1; Rule 3A:17.1). This proceeding to ascertain
punishment necessarily presumes a guilty verdict. Otherwise, the second proceeding would not
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Although the question of the timeliness of a motion to poll the jury is a matter of first
impression in this Court, the statutory scheme quoted above, the Rule itself, and our precedent
imply that any motion to poll the jury on their verdict during each phase of a bifurcated trial must
be made before the conclusion of that phase. Thus, any motion to poll the jury regarding a
defendant’s guilt must be made before the guilt phase has concluded and the sentencing phase
has begun. To conclude otherwise would ignore the finality of the verdict once the sentencing
phase commences and would also ignore the statutory mandate that the sentencing phase of the
trial is limited to determining punishment. Here, after the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all
counts, Kenner failed to timely exercise his right under Rule 3A:17(d) to poll the jury regarding
its guilty verdict. At that point, the guilty verdict became final. Accordingly, Kenner’s motion
made during the separate proceeding to determine punishment was untimely and the circuit court
did not err in denying his motion.
Outcome: For all of these reasons, the judgment of the circuit court is affirmed.